SOCHI, Russia- Cristiano Ronaldo will launch his latest and probably last attempt to crown his career with a World Cup winners medal when European champions Portugal face neighbours Spain in their opening World Cup game here on Friday.
The 33-year-old will lock horns with six of his Real Madrid team-mates as the Spaniards attempt to shrug off the shock sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui following the announcement that he will take over at the Bernabeu next month.
It is worth wondering what Ronaldo might have known of Lopetegui’s imminent appointment at Real, given the relationship both have with Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, at a time when the forward’s own club future remains the source of speculation.
But now, amid all that, Ronaldo’s focus is on the World Cup, the one major honour still missing from his CV.
It is a stretch to make Portugal one of the favourites to win the trophy, even with Ronaldo, but they are nevertheless in Russia as the reigning European champions after surprising France on home soil two years ago.
Ronaldo is 33 now, still in fantastic physical condition and the reigning Ballon d’Or winner. He can probably play on for as long as he wants, but it is hard to imagine him returning for a fifth World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
If he is to cap his career with a World Cup winner’s medal, then now is his time, and what better way to start than by inspiring Portugal to victory over their neighbours and put themselves in pole position in Group B.
“Of course Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player in the world at the moment and he will be the top player at this World Cup. There are no words to describe him,” said admiring team-mate Joao Mario at Portugal’s base near Moscow this week.
Ronaldo was playing the last time Portugal beat their rivals in a major tournament, winning 1-0 to eliminate Spain in the group stage at Euro 2004.
He was just 19 then, and has gone on to become his country’s leading scorer with 81 international goals.
He won his 150th cap in the recent friendly against Algeria. And yet he has never quite managed to replicate his club form on the major tournament stage.
He lasted just 25 minutes before coming off injured in the Euro 2016 final, watching from the sidelines as Eder’s extra-time goal shocked France.
At the World Cup so far, Ronaldo has managed just three goals in three tournaments: a penalty against Iran in 2006; one against North Korea in 2010, and one against Ghana in 2014.
There will be an obvious determination to improve that record in Russia, with Portugal also facing Morocco and Iran in their group.
But he also needs to act as a father figure to the talented young members of Fernando Santos’s squad, like Bernardo Silva, Goncalo Guedes and Gelson Martins.
The latter is one of four Portugal players — along with William Carvalho, Bruno Fernandes and Rui Patricio — who say they will be breaking their contracts with Ronaldo’s first club, Sporting Lisbon, after being attacked by disgruntled fans last month.
Ronaldo has a responsibility to unite the squad and focus minds ahead of his fourth World Cup.
“Ronaldo is our captain, he sets an example for us and is advising us younger players and sharing his experience,” said Manchester City’s Silva.
That experience, and inside knowledge of many of the Spain players, will be crucial on Friday by the Black Sea.
Portugal versus Spain – past encounters
Friday’s World Cup clash between Portugal and Spain will be their fourth meeting at a major tournament this century, going back to Euro 2004, when Cristiano Ronaldo was just starting out.
AFP Sport casts a glance over the previous three clashes, which produced just two goals:
Euro 2004 -June 20, 2004, Lisbon: Euro 2004 Group A
Portugal 1 Spain 0
Ronaldo is the only survivor from this game who will feature in Sochi. He was just 19 when the Iberian neighbours went head to head in a vital final group game at the European Championship in Portugal.
The winners knew they would go through to the last eight with Greece and a second-half Nuno Gomes goal gave the host nation the victory in Lisbon.
Captained by Luis Figo, Portugal went on to lose the final to the Greeks, while the early exit was something of a nadir for the Spanish. Only three players from this game — Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol and Fernando Torres — were still there to start the Euro 2008 final victory over Germany.
World Cup 2010 -June 29, 2010, Cape Town: World Cup last 16
Spain 1 Portugal 0
Spain, by now the reigning European champions, got their revenge in this knockout clash at the World Cup in South Africa.
Portugal had reached the last 16 without conceding a goal but Spain eventually broke them down in the 63rd minute in Cape Town, David Villa scoring at the second attempt after his initial effort had been saved by Eduardo.
The Portuguese finished with 10 men after Ricardo Costa was sent off on a poor night for Ronaldo, who sloped off the pitch at the end, spitting disapprovingly at the ground right in front of a television camera that was following the Real Madrid star.
Euro 2012 -June 27, 2012, Donetsk: Euro 2012 semi-final
Portugal 0 Spain 0 after extra time
Spain win 4-2 on penalties
Another incredibly tense and tight meeting of the countries, this time in deepest Ukraine with a place in the final of the European Championship at stake.
It was half past midnight local time when Cesc Fabregas scored the spot-kick that took Spain through to the final in which they destroyed Italy to win a third consecutive major title.
Ronaldo had been unable to make the difference and did not even get the chance to take a penalty in the shoot-out. He was lined up to go fifth, but misses by Joao Moutinho and Bruno Alves had already condemned Portugal before he stepped up.